In 2015, we witnessed bullets dancing with debris, unilateral bombing campaigns more lavish than presidential ones, the endless cries of pneumatic sirens forcing compressed air across polluted cities — populated yet protested, abandoned yet internalized. Bodies were strewn, washed ashore, and brutalized, while others were still erecting cultural borders, still constructing justifications, still being acquitted. And yet, our virtual bodies were lodged in the interstices between cascading style sheets and semantic meta-information, between nodes and network protocols — always in between, always connected. And always predictable.
If our social relationships are increasingly mediated by data, then our digital relationships are partly dependent on code to bring about surprise and unpredictability, to fracture our habits and patterns with something. But our code didn’t offer such respite, so we looked once again to music for that necessary disruption; for that hyperreal gesture, that random swerve, that probabilistic mutation; for that sense of cultural robustness and discovery that complemented, critiqued, and provided necessary counternarratives.
And, this year, the counternarratives in our favorite 50 releases were vast. We were in many places and in many times at once: in the wilderness, in the garden, in the river, in fantasia. We were on the hills of Cypress and on the streets of L.A.. We were in the frozen Niagara Falls, at the piteous gate, and in 14th-century France. And like our predictable technological behavior, we were drifting, from product to platform, from days to years. Music broke through our limiting frames of reference, providing worlds beyond our models and templates, whether it was the exposure of chart music’s “radical DNA,” the articulation of “the great game,” or the revelation of “soft dick rock.”
These narratives and counternarratives didn’t compete. They co-existed. Which is why Drake could be both dead and alive, time could be both backwards and quasipolynomial, and even maps could be both real and unreal. None of it mattered. All of it mattered. And as we turn our gaze toward 2016 with our increasingly soggy, inscripted bodies, slinging our versions of culture over our shoulders and finessing its shapeless pool of lovely pale colors, we can take a deep breath in, fetishize our materiality, and dwell on all that we could do with this E•MO•TION.
Nothing, some say, is deeper than flesh. If EDM bounces and slides across smooth, young flesh, dampening it like droplets of water at a Las Vegas beach club or beads of sweat at a warehouse rave in Anytown, USA, Lotic’s variant of electronic music plunges into the boundless world of agitations lying underneath. The last time I went to a warehouse to watch a DJ, I felt anxious that something evil was hiding behind the atmosphere of enjoyment. Are the beats merely an outlet for masculine aggression? Let’s be honest about prototypical sandy boardshorts EDM: it’s not even trying to hide its ugliness. The SoundCloud™ waveform of the meaty drop is a phallus of a sinister and familiar variety: that which scrambles the signifiers “violence” and “pleasure,” inching them blurrily closer to one another, as the bass becomes physically perturbing. The best drops are “filthy” and, in a way, like a threatening nature that is sexily forbidden. Lotic is sick and tired of sliding sexily across the surface of the flesh, dealing only unconsciously with the violence beneath. It is not a matter of piercing that surface, as a decade of filthy drops has tried to perversely do, but rather one of speaking sharp and caustic truth to power. Here, Agitations were both difficult and rewarding.
A Year With 13 Moons
In the fashion of Christian Fennesz or Tim Hecker, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma released a disorientingly euphoric, pop-friendly drone album. But A Year With 13 Moons was an album so delectably damaged as to potentially drive one to ridiculous subgenre superlatives. There are halting, overdriven swathes of airy drone all over 2015, but what made this particular collection so special was its intricate unwieldiness. It was lopsided and impossible to hold in your head, with melodies so incidental, so blandly pretty that they became as textural as the accompanying noises and field recordings. Its 40 minutes went by quickly and the ending was abrupt and unceremonious. It was lovely. It was overwhelming. The calm before the storm and the flying debris. We strode in a haze and we stumbled at darting miniature distractions. We remembered to permit some manageable level of vexation, frustration, irrationality. We remembered to open all the windows and simply take in life, through sound, as a collective distortion. We lived this record out on its own playfully irascible terms and found ourselves transcending.
The Ark Work
According to Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, The Ark Work was “a heap of splinters glued together.” We at Tiny Mix Tapes couldn’t have said it better — that is, had we said anything at all about it. We were too stuck in a cycle of arguing and listening and arguing and listening to actually get around to reviewing one of the most 2015 albums 2015 had to offer. We, like that aforementioned metaphor, were more than divided by The Ark Work; we were atomized, mortified, repelled, and hypnotized by it. As the year went on, we kept listening and arguing, until it took us beyond the vanishing points of critical consensus and our own hyper-curated opinions, deep into the glitched-out far lands of inexplicable and unconscious attraction. Even if “Burzum meets Bone-Thugs” ended up sounding more like Bob Pollard and Jonathan Davis tag-teaming the FFVIII soundtrack, then that was merely further evidence that embracing questionable taste was an immanently braver act than, say, reskinning shoegazey post-rock and pitching it as black metal. And so, on behalf of TMT, I offer this to HHH and Liturgy: we think your album rules, sucks, and rules because it sucks; nevertheless, together we bow before your inimitable pretensions, unworthy.
No.00 in clean life
Apparently, atoms are made up of approximately 99.9999999999996% empty space, so most of the universe is in fact “empty.” Which means finding worth is subjective and supremely individualistic. Which also means that Seth Graham is all about space, regardless of your view or scope. His space — and the space of any artist, for that matter — is implicitly full of meaning and worth. And with No.00 in clean life, Graham’s bugged-out, beyond death-glaze swelling and ruminating sounds got the space they deserved. Here, matrimony loneliness mixed with mustard/ketchup satin bulb drops, bleeding into twine rolls and harmonic deterioration. It was all swayed movement globes and double-dutch grit. Smile, god.
Dr. Yen Lo
Days With Dr. Yen Lo
In 2012, Ka told Jeff Weiss he was “looking for perfect rhymes.” With this statement, Ka positioned himself as a man on a mission. From The Moody Blues to Afrika Bambaataa, we’ve heard plenty of musicians proclaim themselves on quests for perfection, but what if somebody actually achieved it? What would that sound like? How would we know it if we heard it? “Listen, what you pitching son got ‘em sick and dumb/ Cease all them jewels in your teeth if you ain’t spitting none/ I carve a lane, do it for the starving brain, mine’s stellar/ My wine cellar puts your bars to shame”: these are perfect rhymes found on Days With Dr. Yen Lo, and they’re not the only ones here. Likewise, Preservation’s menacingly tactful production provides the perfect backdrop to Ka’s wordsmithing, employing drums regularly (despite what you may have heard) but in ways most had never considered. Why not? Maybe we’re too preoccupied with defining “good” and “great” to even consider that perfection’s peering from a window right across the street. Make no mistake: Ka wrote rhymes here as if they were natural extensions of language itself, and it was perfect.
We are oversaturated with modern electronic music, but I consider Jlin’s Dark Energy to be the transformation exception. Be it the footwork Bible, unraveled patterns, or reconstructed commentary, Jlin imbued her sampling with feeling and depth, causing us to lose ourselves in the satisfaction of something we didn’t understand — a post-total surrealism. The energy overall was a laundering of a genre’s chill-front curvature, the current humanity axiom deduced in familiar anomalies. Whatever classical theory collapses our thought processes, Dark Energy reminded us that maybe we do like too much — but here, it felt like the right amount. The meandering was daring, both paying respect to and exceeding the limits of a now-familiar aesthetic. In the daily news nightmare that we live in, the distractions needed to be more fulfilling, and Dark Energy was there to permeate the void.
D’Angelo and The Vanguard
Black Messiah may not have been released in 2015, but it is every second an album of 2015. Setting the crooked metronome of this extraordinary year in motion two weeks before the ball dropped, D’Angelo’s long-awaited third album stands as an awe-inspiring testament to the enduring power of music at a time when culture itself seems to be constantly working against us. Arriving at a moment when, seemingly now more than ever, established notions of political, cultural, and artistic legitimacy are under fierce and much needed scrutiny, Black Messiah serves as a joyous and disruptive reminder that beauty can indeed be revolutionary, that vibrations can move and transform a society, that you can look to the past for inspiration without becoming prisoner to its sins. Like Dilla’s Donuts and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Black Messiah is that truly rare album that is both of its moment and of all moments: that miraculous sort of work that dares you to believe in what can only naively, humbly, exultantly be called The Eternal. Fifteen days too early, fifteen years too late, D’Angelo has given us an infinitely precious gift in Black Messiah. The burden is now on each of us to go into the world and pay that same generosity forward.
Food Court’s twin interpretations of Solage’s “fumeux fume par fumée” found us enthusiastic bystanders to the application of modern techniques of casual & contingent degeneration to the ars subtilior of the late 14th century: the first side’s version stuttered with air to breathe between intricately timed phrases of charmingly ramshackle chromatics, the second’s a still further rarefied expanse with words (“yeah” and “sell,” I think) repeated on top, the song’s notes only rarely hissing up from below. Rid of the composition’s original lyrics, it seemed instead to live out their reference to minds ever more obnubilated by some (pre-tobacco) smoke or fumes, perhaps hashish (as the gleeful conjecture of some might have it) or vapors in the brain otherwise aroused in consequence of humoral perturbations, haunting the understanding with blear-eye’d smog and amused indecision. It’s true, after all, that the largeness of passages in a hot Head wherein Vapors may ascend leaves some filled and burdened, but for Brains so cold and moist & Souls so smutched and sullied as those of the TMT staff, Food Court we found not schismatical: it pleased us as greatly as smoke pleased Solage’s smoker in his meditations and smoky speculations.
The Baltika Years
You call Ben Zimmerman a prophet and you do well. A clarification is in order, though. While the composition exercises he created between 1992 and 2002 anticipated the aesthetic of many current electronic artists, not least his Software labelmates, they were not a product of chance. Zimmerman was not a typical kid who toyed with a RadioShack-purchased PC-imitation and stumbled upon what sounded like real music. Through that decade, Zimmerman received serious musical training, was aware of the work of John Oswald and Harry Smith, and became tech-savvy enough to tweak drum machines into droning synths. He was a pioneer as far as he had the acumen and technological access to produce this type of work decades before any average teenager got a torrent away from such a position. Moreover, the quirks and limitations that Zimmerman’s instrument of choice entailed did not try to call attention to the medium in the manner many contemporary works do. The Baltika Years does not dabble in obsolete technology or memory signifiers. Zimmerman’s Tandy DeskMate was just the material threshold he adopted to chronicle his impressions on the passing of time. He did not question the cheesy 16-bit textures or the lack of note-processing power any more than you second-guessed Liu Kang’s digitized sprites. That’s what sets this album apart from the realm of curiosities, revisionism, or collectors’ fodder, allowing these personal filigrees to transcend the specificities of their time.
DJ Nigga Fox
Noite E Dia
With historical and geographical factors in mind, it’s unexpected — but deserved, and increasingly crucial — that a handful of producers and MCs from Lisbon would direct a monumental shift in dance music, in its site-specific assumptions and in its identity. Listening to Noite E Dia’s opening track “Um Ano” for the first time brought on the same shivers I experienced while listening to Machinedrum’s “The Statue” or Logos’s “Kowloon.” Granted, these three tracks exist light-years away from each other, but what I was taken by was the experience of listening to something entirely different from anything I’d heard before, a punch in the face from a culture so enthrallingly alien as to assure feverish fascination. While the heavyweights of dance music’s global culture were content to squeeze out cookie-cut, inconsequential drivel (lookin’ at you, Innervisions), Príncipe Discos and DJ Nigga Fox flipped the script entirely, tore the hinges off the doors of house and techno’s dour establishment, and gave it the most important shot in the arm this side of FWD>>.